Last Night's TV: The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best/BBC2
The Big C/More4
Friday 11 February 2011
Rather like Ant and Dec, it's quite hard to tell the Hairy Bikers apart. This doesn't seem to matter. They move as one, enthuse as one, chomp and swallow and gurn as one. The only time they distinguish themselves is when arguing. Pretend arguing, that is. "It's tree-cal," hiccuped one (Si?), holding up a can of Lyle's Golden. "It's sirup, man," boomed the other (Dave?).
They are – in the parlance of their reality-TV equivalents – engaging in one long Bush Tucker Trial, travelling around the country to celebrate home cooking. Last night saw them on a quest for comfort food – "food that makes us feel that little bit better," they said – from the home-made plum crumbles to the nettle puddings and the hand-raised pork pies. Oddly, for a programme called Mums Know Best, they started the whole thing off with Dee's dad's Denby Dale pie.
Dee, we learned, hasn't been entrusted with her family's recipe before. It's nothing too complicated – just a beef casserole, really, with a pastry crust – but it's all in the seasoning. So much so that Dee's dad has a name for it: 6119, like George Harrison's Gretsch. Anyway, off she went to fry off the beef, boil the potatoes and reduce the gravy. The bikers even helped her cut out a little cowshape to crown it. "Not bad for a first attempt," concluded dad, on tasting.
Away from Denby Dale, there were less traditional options on offer. In Blackpool, the beef curry Anjie's mum used to make, at Castle Howard, a posh fish-finger sandwich (salmon rather than Birds Eye). Everything, said the bikers, was "unctuous". It's their word.
The crowning glory – the grand finale of the whole homely quest – was a "comfort food fair", complete with food historian and pineapple upside down cake. Our bikers bounded round, enthusiastically tasting the various concoctions on offer. Nothing was bad. Rather sweetly, each individual mouthful warranted a round of applause. I'm not quite sure of the programme's purpose– what with Britain's Best Dish, Rick Stein's Food Heroes et al – it's hardly the first of its kind, but I did quite like it. Rather like the dishes on offer, it was vaguely comforting. And there are, after all, worse things than that.
Judging from its first two episodes, The Big C isn't quite the taboo-breaker we might have hoped. America's much-vaunted "cancer comedy" has seen the critics divided over matters of taste, and its star – the effervescent Laura Linney – hailed for her performance.
But The Big C isn't really about cancer at all. Yes, the illness features as a (fairly crucial) plot device, but so could a host of other life-changing events. To wit: last week Linney's character, harassed mother Cathy Jamison, discovered that she has terminal melanoma. She doesn't, however, tell anyone about this. Neither does she seek treatment. Instead, she treats the diagnosis as a kind of free pass to start living life as she always should have. Without telling him why, she booted her husband out of the house. She had wasted, she reflected, too many hours closing his cupboards and washing up his glasses. She decided to start teaching her son a few lessons, like, for instance, that if he doesn't tidy his room, she'll give away all his clothes. In short, very little time is spent dealing with the whole cancer side of things. The Big C is a tale about a woman who decides to change her life – live each day as one of her last. It could have been cancer that triggered it, or it could have been another illness. It could, in fact, have been a number of things. The cancer is incidental, lurking in the background. Never discussed, never described, it remains but a bit player.
None of which is to say that The Big C isn't worth watching. Linney is predictably enchanting as our diem-seizing heroine, and Oliver Platt comfortably amusing as her down-at-heel husband. Her son, played by Gabriel Basso, is really quite shockingly horrid, possibly too much so, at times. Why, I found myself wondering, does Jamison put up with his bratishness? And Gabourey Sidibe makes a rather joyous addition as Andrea, an overweight student Cathy is trying to get in shape.
It's this strength of casting that must account, in large part, for the show's success. They bestow on it that easy watchability that the Americans do so well. Beyond that, there's not much to distinguish The Big C from the countless other above-average series around at the moment. The script is unremarkable: lightly amusing but not much more, at times a little saccharine. The concept itself isn't all that novel, and it makes way for a few not-terribly-attractive clichés (the doctor complimenting Jamison on her "awesome rack", the punch line, presumably, being that she's ancient and therefore nigh on incapable of being found attractive). Hopefully, The Big C will start to feature the Big C a little more. In the meantime, there are worse things on television.
Week two of Marchlands, and things have taken a turn for the weird. Or, if you like, the even more weird. All final vestiges of psychological thriller abandoned, we've plunged headlong into full-on ghost story. It's dubious territory, and it comes with a dubious box of tricks – surprises in the mirror, creaking swings, mystery handprints – but you know what? I think like it. Things are genuinely creepy, occasionally quite frightening. Coupled with classy performances and a commendable absence of special effects, it's really rather gripping.
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